The Police Complaints Authority (PCA) has investigated 150 fatal police shooting incidents resulting in 258 deaths from 2011 to March 2019. According to their statistics, the average annual number of police killings between 2013 and 2019 works out to about 34 deaths per year.
Across the same time period in the USA, the city with the highest annual number of police killings per 1 million population is St Louis at 18 deaths; and it is an extreme outlier relative to the other cities. In Chicago, which has been often compared to Trinidad and Tobago for its inner city gang violence, the figure is an average of four killings per year per million residents.
Comparison of the per capita data therefore suggests that we certainly have a police violence problem in Trinidad and Tobago as well. Yet for the most part, in gauging the mood of my friends, peers, colleagues, acquaintances and the country in general, we don’t seem half as outraged at the situation here at home as we are about the situation in America. Why is this so?
Perhaps it has to do with how the argument is framed in America, that is largely around race, with class being a secondary issue. We see ourselves in George Floyd et al, we can share in the collective victimhood, we have family and friends based in the US who recount similar horror stories and we may have experienced the atmosphere of dread, suspicion and unstated hostility first hand when we visit.
The compelling urge to express solidarity with the #BLM Movement should therefore be of no surprise. In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s the reverse; while race is certainly a factor, class is the true divider here when it comes to our experience of police violence and brutality.
Yes we may all have encountered instances of rudeness and general incompetence, but it’s really where you reside that will mostly determine how often you are subjected to unwarranted aggression, violence and intimidation.
“Othering” is not a trait unique to white people alone; it’s pervasive here as well, just practiced more along geographical lines. Hypocrisy is probably too strong a word for it, but it’s like many of us suffer from some sort of cognitive dissonance.
It’s why some of us can be brought to tears when we hear Mr Floyd’s last gasp pleas for his mother, yet steupse automatically when we hear a grief-stricken mother lament that ‘her son was a good boy’—no matter the context.
Or we nod in agreement with the CNN commentators when they rightfully call out President Trump for using loaded words such as ‘thug’ as a racial dog whistle to dehumanise minorities, but when our CoP refers to certain segments of the population as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘pests’ he is widely praised for his ‘straight talk’.
To be fair to the CoP, he is simply telling a people fed up of crime what they want to hear, and opportunistically parlaying this fear and anger into boosting public confidence within his own ranks. Achieving this at the expense of further stigmatisation of the disenfranchised, he may argue, is not his problem.
Still, for all his regrettable and unnecessary bluster, it should also be noted that his work to expand police accountability and weed out bad elements in the service is actually commendable relative to his predecessors.
For example, the PCA has publicly stated that relations with the Police Service has improved and they now receive requested files and information on a timelier basis. Additionally, the CoP continues to advocate for the dismissal of officers on serious criminal charges in the face of continued opposition from the police union.
We clamour for these measures to be implemented in America, but hardly seem to care when they are debated in our own country.
Here, as in America, a lot more has to be done to really address this issue in a systematic way. One of the features of the current protest action in America that differentiates it in impact from previous efforts is that a lot more white people seem to have recognised their role/culpability in the current power structure, and seem to want to ally themselves with the BLM Movement and reckon with that culpability in a more meaningful and genuine way.
Everyone is the hero in their own story and so this recognition that you are part of the problem is a difficult thing to naturally wrap your head around.
We need a similar level of awakening in our own context. As long as we see police violence as a Sea Lots or Enterprise problem, with the added implication that it is a problem that ‘they’ brought upon ‘themselves’, things won’t improve and crime in general will worsen the more we excommunicate and isolate those communities.
In fact, it can very easily spill over into something worse if we are not careful. We have to resist our natural urge to automatically dismiss and disbelieve complaints from those areas, particularly in regard to their run-ins with the law, or risk losing them completely.
I am not naïve, I am very aware that criminal elements conveniently cry wolf when it suits their purposes, but accountability works both ways and can conclusively expose those falsehoods as well.
Relative to the wider Police Service, the PCA is under staffed and underfunded. Body cameras have been procured since 2017 but their institutionalised usage is still haphazard and unclear at best. The process to discipline and/or dismiss bad cops, much less to actually convict them of crimes, is biased and convoluted.
Discrimination, stigmatisation and the deprivation of opportunities for persons from certain communities remain entrenched in our society at all levels. If we truly want to honour the ideals of the BLM Movement and express solidarity with their cause, we should move beyond the hashtag activism and seek ways to make clear to our elected officials that the above issues are important to us collectively and we would like to see more priority given to them.
In closing I urge you to read this article published recently in the Newsday, to little fanfare, about a father waiting almost two years for justice for his son, Yasin Richardson, in spite of the best efforts of the PCA.
Bear in mind that we were outraged that it took a whole week for the officer who killed Mr Floyd to be charged.